LAPWAI, Idaho — The Nez Perce Indians, renowned horsemen who developed the Appaloosa breed, may have a new claim to fame: the Nez Perce Horse, which blends the showy speckled Appaloosa with a lean Central Asian war horse called akhal-teke.
The Nez Perce aren't ready to brag yet, because the first of the strain are barely five years old. But everything looks good so far.
"Dreams are scary when they start coming true," says Rudy Shebala, who runs the tribe's horse-breeding program. "We have these awesome horses now."
It's not the first time Nez Perce horses have been noticed. That's been going on nearly two centuries.
On Feb. 15, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote about them in his journal:
"The horses appear to be of an excellent race. They are lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable. In short, many of them look like fine English horses and would make a figure in any country."
The new breed resembles the Appaloosa but is taller and a little leaner.
The Nez Perce developed the Appaloosa breed from wild mustangs, but the tribe lost its mounts in the Nez Perce War of 1877. The light-footed war horses were scattered after Chief Joseph made his famous pledge: "I will fight no more forever."
The new breeding program was helped by a Minnesota breeder who donated four tall akhal-teke horses in 1994.
In the spring of 1995, 24 colts were born. Dozens more followed.
The tribe's attempt to resume its horse culture hasn't gone unnoticed. Media accounts have prompted interest by folks driving through the remote area, where the horses can be spotted grazing in pens.
"Hi, we're here to see the horses," says a recent passer-by.
Shebala's assistant waves the three visitors toward the pen where the young hopes are held.
With two full-time employees and 80 horses, the tribal program's 1999 budget was $111,000, Shebala said. He recently sold a horse to a Virginia man for $5,000.
The goal is to develop a business while restoring the tribe's horse culture, and this summer 10 teenagers — part of the tribe's youth program — have pitched in.
Six teens haul hay into bins, clean out stalls and practice their riding skills while Shebala watches. Many of the young participants are part of the tribe's Young Horseman project, learning to care for horses as their ancestors did.
In July, they rode with Salish and Kootenai Indians while repairing trails on the Montana route the Nez Perce used during the 1877 war.
"It's really wonderful to see these young people," said Otis Halfmoon, unofficial tribal historian and manager at the Nez Perce National Historical Park. "There's great pride in their eyes when you visit with them."
Along with the renewed interest is a return of old regalia and traditional ceremonial wear for horses. Halfmoon recently saw a Nez Perce horse dressed in a corn husk trapping, a skill nobody practices these days, he said.
"A lot of Nez Perce families, they save and put away a lot of the regalia. They must have put it in a trunk and they decided to bring it out again," Halfmoon said.
"To see these old things come back makes me feel good."